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Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

Release Date: March 10, 2015
Publisher: Dutton BFYR
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Pages: 336
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Skillfully blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, award-winning Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith chronicles the story of Ariel, a refugee who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel's story is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century . . . and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.

With its insane plot, well-drawn characters, and wholly unique narrative style, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle was my favorite novel of 2014. Both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are rock solid offerings from a delightful, off-kilter author, so my expectations for The Alex Crow were understandably high. Unfortunately, the strengths of both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger are weaknesses in The Alex Crow, which feels like a half-hearted and half-baked Andrew Smith effort.

Winger and Grasshopper Jungle are both grounded in exceptional character work that shines on every level, whether it be distinctive characters, realistic relationships, or compelling interpersonal conflicts. There are very brief shades of that in The Alex Crow, particularly about two thirds of the way through when Ariel’s experiences in a refugee camp are recounted. Aside from a few momentary high points, though, the characters lack any discernible conflict, resolution, or personality. Most characters are little more than a plot mechanism. The best example is Ariel’s adoptive brother, Max. Max’s only defining characteristic is his admittedly amusing ability to spout off an unlimited number of euphemisms for masturbation. He vaguely resents Ariel and their entire character conflict is first addressed and resolved with a single hug, after which their interactions remain basically unchanged. There is some subtle stuff with Ariel moving from virtually silent to talkative later on, but it feels more like a way to get the plot rolling than any sort of character growth.

The plot is similarly unfulfilling in that there doesn’t seem to be very much of one. There are a lot of threads, half-mysteries, and slick misdirections, but in the end it boils down to a whole lot of not much. The shame is that the threads floating around could coalesce into a really interesting novel, but it almost feels like Smith doesn’t want to betray the conceit of (almost) everything happening at summer camp. We have to sit through an annoying number of pages following a crazy guy driving across country and another plot about a ship named the Alex Crow that only tangentially relate to our main characters. They do tell the story of the creation and experiments of a secretive science department named Alex Division, but the story of Alex Division feels divorced from that of the main characters, even though the two do briefly intersect. The kids feel entirely superfluous to the story of Alex Division; the actual reason the kids are important to Alex Division’s plans are so mundane and ultimately unnecessary that connecting the two bores rather than excites. The book feels like it either should have been full on about Alex Division or left open the question of whether it exists, what it does, and whether or not any of the strange stuff that might be happening actually did. While it was nice to read a young adult sci-fi novel where the main characters aren’t some sort of legendarily competent renegade or hero whose job it is to take down the adults’ crazy schemes, I also would have preferred a little more to their story than smoking weed and dealing with a crappy camp counselor. 

Even the style seems a little not-Andrew-Smith. There’s the normal irreverence and willingness to address subjects like sex, drugs, and alcohol; however the book lacks the pop and energy of Smith’s previous work. Where Grasshopper Jungle and Winger felt focused and streamlined, The Alex Crow feels fat around the edges, like Smith isn’t quite sure what he wants the novel to be. Luckily, that doesn’t stop the novel from being a quick, smooth, and occasionally funny read.

With all of that said, I did read the novel is essentially one sitting and was having a great time up through about the last fifty pages. I don’t have complaints about what’s there so much as what isn’t. The whole novel feels like it’s the first two-thirds of a novel, like the plot twist that brings everything into focus and satisfying resolution is sitting there five pages after the end, just taunting the reader. Instead, we just get this vague conflict between adults that ends up not even actually mattering and kids whose role in the big conflict matter even less. It just feels like there’s 50-100 more pages to the story than we got. The whole thing feels like it wasn’t quite finished, from the character arcs to the plot to the style. It’s not bad so much as a quick, amusing piece of completely forgettable, pointless fluff.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tuck Everlasting 40th
Anniversary Blog Tour

"You don't have to live forever, you just have to live."
- Angus Tuck, Tuck Everlasting

That's probably one of my favorite literary quotes. I'm a big believer in the notion that you should live in the moment and not take your days on this Earth for granted. However, that being said, I've often wondered what it would be like to have forever. Honestly, who hasn't?

There are obvious downsides. Losing loved ones, constant era-related learning curves, endless days, etc. Think about all the times you've looked at a clock and wished the hours would pass a little faster, then imagine a lifetime of those days where all you can do is trudge through. And if you're the least bit fashion conscious, consider the massive wardrobe turnover.

But there would be benefits to eternity. Countless opportunities to try new things and have new experiences, perhaps meeting some of the brightest minds and greatest artists of decades to come. Living history and realizing in the moment that people's children and grandchildren will learn about an event you witnessed in real time.

Of course, there's also the hope that you've found the kind of epic love that will last an eternity. The kind of whirlwind romance where every day feels like the shivers of anticipation that come with a first kiss. Eternity may seem daunting, but, if you have the right person beside you to pass the time and share a laugh on the days where there's less awe in the world around you, then living forever might not be so bad.

2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Natalie Babbitt’s celebrated, ground-breaking title Tuck Everlasting. In celebration of the anniversary, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group will publish a special anniversary edition featuring an introduction from Wicked author Gregory Maguire.

Natalie will be in conversation with Gregory Maguire at Symphony Space in New York City on Sunday, January 25 at 1:00 PM. Alexis Bledel, star of the 2002 movie adaptation, will read from the book.

Tuck Everlasting asks readers “What if you could live forever?” Doomed to, or blessed with, eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less of a blessing than it might seem. Then complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

Upon the book’s publication in 1975, Natalie was greeted with concern from parents and educators who were stunned to read a book about death written for children. She is an author who challenges her readers and thinks the best questions are the ones without answers.

This 40th anniversary will introduce a whole new generation to this timeless classic. The book has sold over 3.5 million copies in the US alone, and has never been out of print since publication.
Natalie Babbitt is the award-winning author of Tuck Everlasting, The Eyes of the Amaryllis, Knee-Knock Rise, and many other brilliantly original books for young people. She began her career in 1966 as the illustrator of The Forty-Ninth Magician, a collaboration with her husband. When her husband became a college president and no longer had time to collaborate, Babbitt tried her hand at writing. Her first novel, The Search for Delicious, established her gift for writing magical tales with profound meaning. Knee-Knock Rise earned her a Newbery Honor, and in 2002, Tuck Everlasting was adapted into a major motion picture. Natalie Babbitt lives in Connecticut, and is a grandmother of three. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Art of Lainey by Paula Stokes

Release Date: May 20, 2014
Publisher: HarperTeen
Age Group: Young Adult
Format: Paperback
Source: Publisher
Pages: 384
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Soccer star Lainey Mitchell is gearing up to spend an epic summer with her amazing boyfriend, Jason, when he suddenly breaks up with her—no reasons, no warning, and in public no less! Lainey is more than crushed, but with help from her friend Bianca, she resolves to do whatever it takes to get Jason back.

And that’s when the girls stumble across a copy of The Art of War. With just one glance, they're sure they can use the book to lure Jason back into Lainey’s arms. So Lainey channels her inner warlord, recruiting spies to gather intel and persuading her coworker Micah to pose as her new boyfriend to make Jason jealous. After a few "dates", it looks like her plan is going to work! But now her relationship with Micah is starting to feel like more than just a game.

What's a girl to do when what she wants is totally different from what she needs? How do you figure out the person you're meant to be with if you're still figuring out the person you're meant to be?

After Lainey's boyfriend Jason publicly dumps her at the beginning of the summer following their junior year of high school, her best friend Bianca tricks her into doing some summer reading by creating a plan to get him back utilizing Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Using a 10 point list based on bits gleaned from the ancient Chinese literature, Lainey and Bianca create a strategy involving Micah, a coworker at the coffee shop where they work, who's also recently single, designed to reunite each of them with their exes. It's a jealousy pact which involves alternating dates to attract the attention of their former paramours in order to remind them of what they're missing. What they don't anticipate, is how much they start to enjoy spending time with each other, despite being from totally different social stratospheres.

Not everything about this book was what I predicted based on the brief publisher synopsis and what I thought was being set up in the first couple of chapters. I was pleasantly surprised that this story had more girl power pumped into it than I expected from a book boasting luring an ex boyfriend back using cunning and feminine wiles. As Lainey tries to repair her relationship with Jason, she finally sees how much she was changing herself to be what he wanted rather than what she wanted. There was also less about The Art of War itself than I anticipated. There were quotes at the beginning of each chapter and some discussions between Lainey and Bianca, but throughout, as much as the book was referenced, the strategies themselves were glossed over for the list that the girls derived.

The book was charming, despite being predictable, particularly when it transitioned into Lainey figuring out who she was and what she wanted beyond the expectations of her parents, friends and boyfriend. The turning point didn't hit me over the head, but allowed Lainey to come to conclusions in her own time rather than rushing to the realization that she hadn't been the person she wanted to be in her previous relationship.